“Charulata” - Satyajit Ray (1964)

Charulata (1964) is thought by many to have been Satyajit Ray’s finest film, and indeed Ray himself said that it was his personal favorite of all his works. Certainly it is one of Ray’s most polished and aesthetically ambitious efforts. It seems to me that it is with this film that Ray fully asserted his own personal artistic dominance. He mentioned at the time that he decided with this production to take his time and get what he wanted.  So he wrote the script and storyboards, composed the main musical themes (although he used some existing songs, including some written by Rabindranath Tagore), helped design the sets, and for the first time personally took over control of the camera [1,2].

The story of the film is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novella Nastanirh (The Broken Nest, 1901) about a neglected wife in a wealthy Bengali milieu.  In that story, the young cousin of a wealthy Bengali aristocrat comes for a visit and strikes up a friendship with his older cousin’s young wife.  Although Indian wives have always been expected to have limited contact with men outside their families, much closer associations with cousins and brothers-in-laws have always been accepted.  And in the wider, extended family context of India, cousins are considered to be essentially “brothers” and are even referred to as such.  So the visiting “cousin-brother” in the story strikes up a close friendship with his cousin’s wife, which gradually begins to stretch the limits of acceptable intimacy.  In the end it leads to the “broken nest”.

What has always fascinated Indians about this story is that  it seems to reflect Tagore’s own personal experiences [3].  When he was growing up, Tagore was very friendly with his older brother Jyotirindranath’s child bride, Kadambari Devi.  Rabindranath was twelve years younger than Jyotirindranath, but he was only two years younger than his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi, so the two youngsters spent a lot of time together and became close companions, with common interests in poetry and art. However, shortly after Rabindranath had an arranged marriage at the age of 23, Kadambari Devi committed suicide, and it has always been assumed that her close relationship with Rabindranath Tagore figured into this tragic event somehow.  Indeed when Satyajit Ray managed to examine Tagore’s actual manuscripts for Nastanirh, he noticed Tagore’s marginal notes connecting the story’s main character with Kadambari Devi.  However, because of the great reverence with which Tagore is generally held in Indian society, these personal associations and their implications have always been a delicate issue, in fact almost considered off limits for artistic treatment.  Nevertheless and despite these issues of social propriety, Ray went ahead and developed a carefully nuanced treatment of the story.  And he did not avoid the Tagore association; by setting the film in 1879-80, he placed it at a time that roughly matched Tagore’s youthful experiences.

But adding to these personal complications here is a further speculative layer associated with Ray’s own rumored relationship at this time with his lead actress, Madhabi Mukherjee.  These personal ingredients, however, are not really my focus.  My primary interest is the work of art as it stands by itself and what it means to us today.  Charulata has several interesting thematic layers that make the film much more than a culture-bound love story.

One obvious theme that attracts the most discussion about the film is the role of women in modern society, particularly Indian society. To what extent were educated Indian women expected to conform to a restricted domestic role? And to what extent was their intellectual independence to be encouraged? Charulata’s intellectual development in the story directly relates to these questions.

Another, more subtle, theme in the film concerns the degree to which one can communicate deep aspects of human experience by means of the written word.  It was Ray’s belief that the crucial moments in life go beyond words, despite the fact that the main characters in Charulata are very much concerned with crafting words correctly [4,5].  But by summoning up their poetic gifts, the two main characters in the film seem to be trying to express things that are outside the normal scope of textual expression.  So the success of his film very much depended on his actors’ dramatic talents of expression that went beyond the spoken word – that is, in terms of facial expressions and gestures.  Fortunately, he had a cast that responded to his direction by giving outstanding performances in this regard.

There are really only five characters of interest in the film.  But that doesn’t mean the film is limited in its scope – as with many of Ray’s films, we get a multi-perspective views of all these characters with multiple focalizations.
  • Bhupati Dutta (played by Shailen Mukherjee) is the wealthy 35-year-old Bengali aristocrat whose primary interest is the success of his newly launched and politically liberal newspaper.
  • Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) is the would-be poet and first cousin of Bhupati.  But he is treated (in accordance with Bengali tradition) like a brother-in-law of Charulata (i.e. like a brother of Bhupati).
  • Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) is Bhupati’s young wife.
  • Umapada (Shyamal Ghoshal) is Charulata’s older brother.
  • Manda (Gitali Roy) is Umapada’s wife.
Most of what we come to know about these characters is not through what they articulate, but through their facial expressions or idle remarks. This is especially true with respect to Madhabi Mukherjee’s wondrous performance as the title character. Her emotive facial expressions, particularly her worried frowns, drive the film and give life to what otherwise would be static scenes. Soumitra Chatterjee, too, is superb, as usual, in evoking the natural compassion and wonder of his character.

In addition to the two themes I have so far mentioned, perhaps the most significant theme of the film lies at the philosophical level.  It corresponds to notions treated by Soren Kierkegaard in his treatise Either/Or – the conflict between the aesthetic existence and the ethical existence.  According to some interpretations of Either/Or, Kierkegaard was suggesting a progressive movement from the aesthetic to the ethical, but I don’t think it was that simple. In my view, what Kierkegaard discussed concerned a tension that is never fully resolved.  It is this aesthetic/ethical tension that fully emerges in the fourth and final phase of the film.

The story of the film passes through four phases:

1.  The Lonely Wife
The film begins showing Charulata idly wandering around the interior of her wealthy mansion looking for something to amuse herself. Her husband Bhupati is preoccupied with his newspaper business and barely notices her. At his dinner, Bhupati talks noisily with his mouth full of food and not attending to the delicate courtesies of social interaction. We get the impression that Charulata was a child bride and that their relationships is cordial, but not close. Later on there is a shot showing Charulata looking wistfully at a servant woman holding a baby and presumably pondering her own childless, and hence unfulfilled, state. 

Ray uses a visual motif here, by showing Charulata looking at the world through her opera glasses.  She may need to do this on account of near-sightedness, but the opera-glasses symbolize Charulata’s non-involvement with the world.  She is only a spectator.  Since (we later learn) she is very intelligent, she spends much of her time reading the leading novels of the day, notably those by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who was a prominent romantic novelist and Bengali nationalist.

To lighten his work load, Bhupati invites Charulata’s good-for-nothing brother Umapada and his wife, Manda, to come live with them hoping that will make the household more interesting. Umapada is entrusted with the financial operations of the newspaper, leaving Charulata and Manda at home together. But Manda’s tastes and educational background are rather crude, and her presence does not reduce Charulata’s boredom.

2. Cousin Amal Arrives

Interrupting this slow, languid setting at about the 20-minute mark of the film, a rainstorm suddenly brews, and seemingly along with it a human rainstorm appears, too – Bhupati’s cousin-brother, Amal.  The 23-year-old Amal has finished his college studies and has arrived for an extended stay.  His interests are not in practical affairs, but in poetry and literature, interests he shares with Charulata.  The contrast between Bhupati and Amal is striking. Bhupati is orderly, logical, and methodical.  He’s interested in the practical problems facing modern Indian society.  Amal, on the other hand, is a free spirit interested in the eternal mysteries of life and art.

On one occasion in the large bed chamber, Amal discusses with Charulata and Manda a contemporary topic – the New Woman versus the Traditional Woman. The two roles depicted may not seem that different from our modern perspective, but it is interesting that the question of the proper role of women in society has never left us. We are still trying to work that out.

3.  Amal and Charulata
The next phase concerns the deepening relationship between Amal and Charulata.  Amal has been tasked by Bhupati to relieve his wife’s boredom by encouraging her literary interests.  In the early scenes Amal appears rather self-obsessed and given to theatrical poetry recitations and song recitals.  But when he and Charulata go out into the estate garden, the richness of nature seems to open up their horizons.  There is then a justly famous 11-minute scene telescoping events over a period of time that shows them discussing poetry in the garden.  Charulata spends her time joyously swinging on a swing hanging from a garden tree, while Amal lies on his back nearby trying to dream up inspired verse worthy of his ambitions. 

Charulata so treasures these moments that she urges Amal not to publish the verses he composes in her company. She wants those words to belong to just the two of them. This is not just a trivial request. When words are exchanged in discourse, there is always a contextual bond between the sender and recipient that cannot be decontextualized without losing something vital. For Charulata, Amal’s composed words are her words – they were sent to her and written into a personalized notebook that Charulata had prepared for Amal. 

Her feeling of satisfaction with this sense of personal engagement is somewhat weakened, though, when she realizes that Amal’s encouragement of her writing was apparently done on the instructions of her husband.  And much further to Charulata’s consternation, Amal then goes ahead and publishes his poetry in a literary magazine anyway.  He is thrilled, because it is apparently his first publication, but Charulata is disappointed with his apparent self-involvement and betrayal of their private discourse. So we are left to wonder whether the swing scene represented real movement towards freedom or merely back-and-forth stasis [6].

Charulata’s only option now is to play that public game, too. She struggles to write something of her own, and after numerous false starts, succeeds! She gets her memoire published in an even more prestigious magazine than the one that published Amal’s work. Now she and Amal are equals and truly engaged on the interpersonal plane of things. But this level of engagement is leading to stress-inducing feelings of love. Seeing Amal’s dilapidated slippers, she gives to him the hand-made slippers she had been making for her husband.  Finally, in a moment of emotional weakness, she breaks down and momentarily embraces Amal.  This passionate gesture was about as far as Ray could go within the moral conventions of Indian cinema at the time.

4.  Ethical Concerns
Meanwhile Bhupati’s world of progressive political engagement is moving forward, too. He and his fellow Bengali Brahmo progressives are thrilled when the British Liberal Party wins the  election back in England, which portends a more liberal attitude towards their Indian colonial activities. While they are celebrating with a concert party, Umapada robs Bhupati’s safe and secretly departs the estate with Manda. We subsequently learn that Umapada had been mismanaging Bhupati’s funds since his arrival and that Bhupati’s newspaper is now bankrupt.

Amal and Charulata are blithely unaware of this treachery, as they now engage privately in a witty alliterative game involving only words that begin with the letter ‘B’.  But Amal is starting to worry about the larger implications of their relationship.  When Bhupati tells him about Umapada’s perfidy, he says that what really disturbed him, more than the material loss, was the idea that someone close to him would blatantly cheat him right under his nose.  For Bhupati, meaningful life entails living according to higher ideals.  He says:
“If a man I put such trust in shows not the slightest respect . . . then what have we got?  How do we go on living?” . . . . Is there no honesty?  Is it all just sham and lies?"
Amal silently takes it to heart. He realizes that he has undermined Bhupati’s trust, too, and has unintentionally gone down a path that will destabilize Bhupati’s marriage with Charulata. Amal hastily packs his bags and departs the estate, leaving only a cursory good-bye note on the table.

Charulata is crushed by Amal’s departure, but she tries to conceal her disappointment.  She returns to using her opera glasses, signifying that she has gone back to being a spectator rather than an active agent.  Bhupati eventually finds out about his wife’s disappointment and finally realizes that he has not only lost his newspaper (his political life), but also his wife (his domestic life).  He goes out in his carriage to contemplate.  When he returns, the frowning Charulata is there to tentatively receive him.  She reaches out her hand, and the film ends with a freeze frame showing their hands not quite touching. 

Ray used a variety of aggressive cinematic techniques to tell the story of Charulata. This was facilitated by the fact that almost the entire film was shot in the studio [7].  In addition to his restless tracking camera that prowls about through all the interior scenes and gives visual movement to the character interactions, there were numerous relatively tight closeup reaction shots showing the three principal characters (especially Charulata) worried about how things will play out.  To focalize on a character, particularly on Charulata, there were a number of full-facial tracking shots following her as she moved forward (the camera tracking backward at pace) through a room.  These tracking closeups included shots of Charulata’s face on the swing, as she swung back and forth – her face remains in closeup as the background shifts wildly to the to-and-fro, thereby conveying Charulata’s joyous liberation..

However, the final freeze frame of the film doesn’t work at all, as far as I am concerned. It has been compared to the final freeze frame of The 400 Blows (1959), but there is a smooth transition and buildup to that final shot in Truffaut’s film, whereas the final shots in Charulata are awkward and look like jump cuts. Ray apparently intended to convey a relationship that was hanging in the balance, but that particular maneuver failed to deliver.

As I mentioned at the outset, many critics regard Charulata as Satyajit Ray’s greatest film, while others dismiss it as too slow and languid.  Your appreciation will depend on whether you tune in to what I consider to be the real philosophical theme of the film.  It comes back to the philosophical duality evoked by Kierkegaard. While Amal and Charulata represent Kierkegaard’s aesthetic focus (the “Either”), Bhupati represents the ethical side (the “Or”).   Underlying this is a cognitive duality – the tension between (a) creativity and (b) mechanical, logical analysis.

In this respect Bhupati is a decent, ethical man.  He tries to follow the rules.  He means well, and he strives for a world in which justice prevails and the common good thrives.  His concerns center around how practically to build a world that achieves these aims.  By deliberately and rigorously following such a path, he believes that a progression towards a better world can be achieved.

However, though Bhupati and Charulata are both good people, they are not a good match – they are not soulmates. The possibilities of higher fulfilment lie in the direction of the relationship between Charulata and Amal. Though they would not deny Bhupati’s aims, Charulata and Amal seek something beyond Bhupati’s just world. This is a world where human creativity rises above the mechanics of ethical rules. The world they seek is a mystical union – one of love, but not just carnal passion.  However, Amal comes to see that in his present circumstances, he cannot go further without compromising the larger concern of social harmony.  He makes his compromise and abandons Charulata.  But this compromise in this instance is a tragedy, and this is fathomed individually by each of the main characters at the end.

  1. Ray’s takeover of the film camera apparently led to an eventual break with his customary cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, who only worked on one further Ray film after Charulata.
  2. Whether or not the director/auteur watches the action through the camera lens (and so only sees what is within the frame) must have a significant influence on the cinematic outcome.  I remember seeing distinguished Italian director Ermanno Olmi remark in an interview that he always operated his own camera, in contrast with Federico Fellini, who he claimed never looked through the camera lens.   Is your favorite director an Olmi or a Fellini?  It would be interesting to catalog which directors are like Olmi and which are like Fellini.
  3. Clifton B. Seely “Translating Between Media: Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray”, Keynote Address, The Twelfth Annual Tagore Festival (2000), Champaign-Urbana, IL, USA.
  4. Andrew Robinson, “Ray on Charulata”, Charulata, The Criterion Collection, 2013.
  5. Moinak Biswas, “Writing on the Screen: Satyajit Ray’s Adaptation of Tagore, Forum Media 6, November 2003, .
  6. Neel Chaudhuri, “Charulata: The Intimacies of a Broken Nest”, Senses of Cinema, April 2004, .
  7. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 180-185.

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